'Divorce,' 'Insecure' earn split decision on HBO

Review: HBO's  'Divorce,' 'Insecure' get split decision
Review: HBO's  'Divorce,' 'Insecure' get split decision

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Review: HBO's 'Divorce,' 'Insecure' get split decision 01:37

(CNN)As proof that creative auspices and name recognition don't always correlate with quality consider the HBO comedies premiering Sunday, as "Insecure," featuring newcomer Issa Rae, tops Sarah Jessica Parker's not-so-triumphant return, "Divorce," by a mile.

Created by Sharon Horgan, who stars in and produces the much better (if slightly overrated) Amazon comedy "Catastrophe," "Divorce" can be viewed charitably as what happens after "Sex and the City."
The New York couple, in this case, has married, moved to the suburbs and had a couple of kids. The sex has dried up, much of their banter is about bodily functions, and the decision to end a moribund relationship begins veering toward "War of the Roses" territory.
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    While the topic is hardly a new one, that doesn't mean there wasn't room for a provocative pay-cable series about the dissolution of a marriage. Enough people have been through that experience to make the concept more relatable than many of HBO's recent half-hours.
    But almost everything about the show feels clunky, even forced. That begins when Frances (Parker) announces to her husband, Robert (Thomas Haden Church, a good actor saddled with a truly off-putting character), that she wants out at a friend's party that goes terribly awry, and it continues with their ludicrous efforts to hide what's happening from their teenagers.
    After trying to orchestrate a very civil split, those plans careen off the rails. In later episodes, the two are walking down the hallway and silently flipping each other off. The writers also keep employing a device that has Parker confessing deeply personal information to near-strangers or casual acquaintances.
    The casting is good, even at the fringes (Molly Shannon and Talia Balsam co-star as Frances's friends), and in theory the serialized plot could always improve; still, "Divorce" seemingly got the title right, since after previewing a half-dozen episodes, the prevailing urge is to split.
    "You're the villain here, not me," Robert snaps at Frances. But when a show's this inert, there's usually enough blame to go around.
    Fresh, considerably funnier and featuring relative unknowns, "Insecure" comes across as everything that "Divorce" isn't.
    Rae stars as Issa Dee, who works at a nonprofit where she complains of being treated by her white colleagues like "the token with all the answers." Even the kids she's helping can be snotty, with one asking her, "Why you talk like a white girl?"
    Issa's personal life is equally confusing, so much so that she spends a lot of time talking (and sometimes rapping) to herself in the bathroom mirror, giving voice to her insecurity.
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    The other late-20-somethings in her orbit face similar issues, from the boyfriend (Jay Ellis) she isn't all that happy with to the dreamy "What if?" guy who's still very much on her mind. Then there's her best pal Molly (Yvonne Orji), who has it all together at work while experiencing her own relationship woes.
    Conceived by Rae (after her web series "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl") with former late-night host Larry Wilmore, "Insecure" could be seen as another iteration of the "Girls" generation from an African-American perspective. But Rae brings a completely distinctive voice to it, and the show can be quite funny, such as Issa's response when she takes students to the beach and a coworker asks why more of the minority kids don't swim. "Slavery," she says.
    Other networks and services have made inroads with quirky comedies, whereas HBO has struggled of late in that arena. In terms of entering the upper echelon of such shows, "Divorce" doesn't catch the bouquet, while "Insecure" should feel quite secure indeed.
    "Divorce" and "Insecure" premiere October 9 at 10 and 10:30 p.m., respectively, on HBO.